The holiday season is truly a magical time of year. It is a time for giving, reflection, and appreciation. Many individuals and organizations come together and show thanks by donating what they can to those in need. Unfortunately, the holidays will not be magical for everyone, especially not for a high proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and 2-Spirit (LGBTQ2S) youth who have experienced familial, societal, and institutional rejection. In fact, the holidays can be an especially lonely time for many, particularly for those without a safe place to call home.
Every single day in drop-in services and housing programs across Canada, LGBTQ2S youth face discrimination, rejection, and violence based on their gender and sexual identities. This is not a new problem. We have known about this issue for a long time.
2015 was an important year for LGBTQ2S communities across the globe.
Approximately 23 years ago, a study conducted in Toronto provided evidence revealing for the first time that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth experienced discrimination in Toronto's shelter system. Although there has since been minimal research conducted in the area of LGBTQ2S youth homelessness in Canada, over the years we have heard from young people themselves about their experiences in support services and housing programs, exposing the harsh reality that these youth often face. Enough data have been collected to support a much-needed change in service delivery.
2015 was an important year for LGBTQ2S communities across the globe. We have certainly seen a substantial shift with regards to how this issue is dealt with and addressed nationally, and internationally alike. Key decision makers are finally including LGBTQ2S youth homelessness on their agendas and there is momentum. It is also safe to say that on some level there is an understanding that this is an emergency situation.
Here in Canada, local and national organizations have started responding by creating awareness raising campaigns and initiatives. A Housing First program for LGBTQ2S youth opened in Vancouver; and in Calgary, Canada's first LGBTQ2S Host Homes program was launched.
The Alberta government has set an excellent example by prioritizing LGBTQ2S youth and supporting the development of a strategy that will help meet the needs of this population of young people in Alberta and ensure that they are served more appropriately. Earlier this year, Toronto City Council approved funding for two LGBTQ2S transitional housing programs. Canada's first LGBTQ2S transitional housing program as intended to open summer 2015, but we are still waiting for the program to launch.
Research has continuously supported the creation of LGBTQ2S specific housing options, which is something that has been hugely successful in the United States. However, there are no current plans to open any specialized LGBTQ2S emergency shelters, a necessary service for young people in emergency situations.
Similar to the situation over two decades ago, queer and trans youth are still overrepresented in the homeless youth population, with estimates as high as up to 40 per cent of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ2S. Housing programs and drop-in services remain unsafe in many circumstances, due to homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination. LGBTQ2S youth also face increased risk of physical and sexual exploitation, mental health difficulties, substance use, and high rates of suicide.
When we do not respond and when we do not take action, we are inadvertently telling society that these youth do not matter, and it is okay to discriminate against them and to keep them waiting for a safe place to sleep.
A promise means nothing unless there is follow through.
I recently asked a young trans man what it is like to be a trans youth experiencing homelessness in Toronto. Here is what he said:
"I have no place I feel safe. There's nowhere to go, and I thought there would be because this is Toronto, if the rest of Ontario has nowhere for me to go I thought Toronto would at least have somewhere, but they don't and I have been all over the place, I have been everywhere in this area. There's nowhere to go.
Try living in a world where it's hard enough to love yourself, but even harder to be accepted, going into a place where you think you can be safe, going into a place where you assume you can get help but every door you try to open is locked or sealed shut, you're trying to walk back to where you started but that door is also locked. You try very hard to break down that door. Once you get through you realize you cannot be you, that's what it's like." (Atlas)
I cannot comprehend that as we enter 2016, we are still not providing basic necessary services to LGBTQ2S youth in one of the richest countries in the world.
During this holiday season young people will still be waiting for a safe place to sleep. With the cold Canadian winter quickly approaching, the wait can be life threatening. What are we waiting for?
Everyone deserves a safe place to sleep.
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